A Persian-Bengali dictionary: Politics of purity in lexicographical space 

Guest post by Mr. A.B.M. Shamsuddoza


During my recent trip to Kolkata*, I came across a lexicographical work titled Parsik Abhidhan (Persian Dictionary) at the rare section of the National Library of India. It is a Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary compiled by Jaygopal Tarkalanker (1775-1846). The dictionary was published in 1838, immediately after the abolition of Persian as court language in British India. In James Long’s A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works (1855) this dictionary is enlisted along with two other Persian-Bengali lexicons published in the same year from Calcutta: A Persian and Bengali Vocabulary by Lakshmi Narayan and Paraseabhidhan by Nilkomal Mustaphi. [1] Jaygopal’s Parsik Abhidhan is one of the earliest specimens of Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary.

Jaygopal was a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He was associated with three famous orientalists of his time: HT Colebrooke, William Carey and JC Marshman. In 1824, he was appointed as a lecturer in vernacular literature at Sanskrit College and worked there until his retirement in 1845.

In Parsik Abhidhan, Jaygopal collected more than 2,500 Persian words. At the beginning, Tarkalanker explains his effort to collate Persian words used in Bengali language to replace them with Bengali equivalents so that “the purity of Bengali language could be preserved, and the language could be salvaged from the humiliation inflicted by 900 years of Muslim rule in India.”

Jaygopal defines purity as cleansing the Bengali language altogether of Persian words. He suggested “স্বদেশীয় সাধুভাষা” (native chaste language/high Bengali dialect) as the true alternative. But what he chose as the native tongue was largely derived from Sanskrit words instead of everyday Bengali words. In this deliberate Sanskritisation effort, he coined equivalents of commonly used Persian words in Bengali language following Sanskrit morphology. A few examples from his dictionary are given below:

রসিদ > স্বহস্তচিহ্নিতপত্র

সবুজ> দুর্ব্বাদলবর্ণ

বকসী> ভান্ডারাধ্যক্ষবিশেষ

মজুর > জীবিকার্থ কায়িকশ্রমকারি

মোজা > বস্ত্রাদিনির্মিত পাদাবরক

বরফ> শিলীভূতহিম

রুমাল> মুখমার্জনবসন

If we situate Jaygopal’s work in its historical context we will see that except the work of Manuel da Assumpção almost all the lexicons produced up to the first half of nineteenth century borrowed heavily from Sanskrit in their attempts to standardise Bengali vocabulary. The standardisation process was largely informed by the notion that Sanskrit being the sacred language of Hindus was the purest of all extant languages. The orientalists’ effort to trace Bengali’s origin in Sanskrit also bolstered this notion. For example, in the first edition of William Carey’s A Grammar of the Bengalee Language (1801) he stated:

“The language in which the classical books of Hindoos are written is principally derived from the Sangskrito [viz. Sanskrit]. This is called pure Bengalee [viz. Bengali].”

Built up over its main Prakrit structure Bengali largely borrowed from Persian language in respect of phonology, vocabulary, morphology and syntax during the course of history of well over 600 years. Even going through the normal philological process of changes in loan words, many Persian words in Bengali lost more or less their own phonology to adapt to the phonology of the borrower language. But Jaygopal considered this amalgamation process as corruption of the language and hence attempted to purify Bengali language by reversing its natural course.

Further research into the Persian-Bengali dictionaries produced during the same period will help understand the anxiety about the standardisation of Bengali language in colonial Bengal and the politics of purity associated with it.


  1. Long, J. A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works. Calcutta: Sanders, Cones & Co., 1855.

*I am grateful to Dr Nandini Chatterjee for providing me the wonderful opportunity to explore the archives and libraries in Kolkata.